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Dead Poets Society

books Updated: Apr 07, 2012 18:17 IST

Hindustan Times
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Think Urdu poetry, and visions of distinguished poets spouting paeans of love and longing to an esoteric few come to mind — a tradition generally associated with older generations. But as poets, old and new, took the stage at one of Delhi’s biggest annual Urdu poetry events held in the Modern School auditorium on March 24, sitting among the greying family audience was a fair sprinkling of younger faces too. What’s more, the Shankar-Shad mushaira, hosted by the DCM Shriram group since 1953 in its 48th edition this year, went live on the web with the site clocking a record 34,125 hits as opposed to 239 hits on March 1. Writer-translator Rakhshanda Jalil says there is a resurgence in Urdu poetry in recent times. “Walk into mushairas, ghazal concerts, qawwalis, poetry readings, recitations, etc, you’ll find many younger people taking an interest in Urdu poetry now,” she says.

There is a perceptible churn. Take, for instance, the theme of  the other annual Urdu poetry event, the 14th Mushaira Jashn-e-Bahar held on April 6 at DPS Mathura Road — the ‘new global identity of Urdu’, where besides India and Pakistan, poets from USA and UK also participated. “Indian films, the diaspora and the potency of Urdu have created a global identity for this essentially Indian language,” says Kamna Prasad, founder of Jashn-e-Bahar trust. In the information age, Urdu has crossed several barriers — international borders, script, ethnicities, cultures, she adds. With its ‘enchanting poetic expression’, it’s becoming popular among the youth as well. “We organise mushairas in educational institutions to showcase literary heritage to young minds,” she explains. This year, a DPS student read out his verse in Delhi, and the mushaira later travelled to Karim college in Jamshedpur.

Jalil sees it as a healthy change where mushairas are no longer confined to the Walled City or its neighbourhood and are being located in ‘hep’ schools. “Urdu is coming out of the closet as it were, stepping out from Old Delhi and moving South. It’s getting hip and tony.”

WHAT’S HAPPENING ONLINE?

The trend is reflected in the online world too. On Twitter, accounts for legendary poets — Mirza Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Faiz Ahmed Faiz — and contemporary poets such as Gulzar have been made by young enthusiasts who regularly post couplets. If followers indicate popularity, then these accounts have managed fair numbers — between 500 to 8,000 followers for each. An account honouring the late poet Sahir Ludhianvi, created last year by 26-year-old ornithologist Mehran Zaidi, already has almost 700 followers. For Zaidi, the proclivity for Urdu poetry is akin to an heirloom. His mother, Atiya Zaidi, a publisher by profession ‘passed on’ the interest to her son, which she ‘inherited’ from her parents. Social networks such as Twitter, Facebook (FB), she says have become important in reviving the tradition. “People don’t have time to read long poems. Each couplet is an independent thought by itself and the structure can fit in 140 characters.”

On FB too, public pages dedicated to poets and status updates using couplets indicate growing engagement. While an Urdu poetry group on FB scored nearly 2,00,000 likes in less than two years, a Mirza Ghalib group has over 2,800 members. Many sites dedicated to Urdu poetry have sprung up, says Jalil. They upload Urdu poetry in Roman English, making it accessible. “I get comments on my blog and FB from young people who say they want to know more,” she adds. Delhi-based artist Pankhuri Singh, 28, has even experimented with a set of handmade poet Rumi-inspired earrings, while fashion designer Gaurav Jai Gupta, 30, replaced his FB profile photo with a sketch of Ghalib recently. “I grew up listening to Abida Parveen, Begum Akhtar. I have most of Jagjit Singh's songs on my phone and was watching the reruns of Mirza Ghalib when I got inspired to change my photo,” he says.

BETWEEN THE COVERS

While online interest seems widespread, its a slower read on the books scene. Penguin brought out Persian poems of Amir Khusrao, the Hindavi (the progenitor to Urdu and Hindi) in early 2011 and recently Neglected Poems by poet-lyricist Gulzar, translated by diplomat-writer Pavan K Varma. While the publishing house is not commissioning books on Urdu poetry per se, an upcoming title is a new translation of Muhammad Iqbal’s iconic Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa next month. Rupa, meanwhile, has released about a dozen titles in the last few years and will bring out noted poet Ahmed Ali’s work this year. “All our titles come with an English translation,” says publisher Kapish Mehra. “In the last 5-6 years, we’ve sold about 2,000-6,000 copies of Urdu poetry books. There’s a slow but growing readership as we become more open to reading ‘newer’ stuff,” he says. Urdu poetry, a part of the Hindi literature category, is inching towards an independent space. “We never had so many categories. In the last two years, there’s been a shift,” he adds. Language publishing remains active in this space. Rajkamal Prakashan, who have been around for over 60 years and published several Urdu titles, brought out poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar’s Laava (book on ghazals) and two books of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry last year. “Besides older poets, we publish newer ones. We also publish Pakistani poetry. Our aim is to map poetry from post-Partition to present day,” says the group’s CEO, Amod Maheshwari.

INCREASING INTEREST

“We’re moving away from the language’s association with religion/people. Younger people, free from the baggage of the past, are more inclined to engage with it,” says diplomat-writer Varma. Pakistan’s younger generation is also harking back to tradition. “In Pakistan too, the problem is of language and script as most youngsters have grown up learning English. But in the last few years there’s been an interest in classics as a means to find themselves,” noted Pakistani poetess Zehra Nigah told HT at an intimate poetry event held in Delhi’s Connaught Place last week. The event had several grey heads requesting their favourites while youngsters were busy listening or filming renditions on mobiles. “There’s a similar space in Karachi run by a youth organisation, where people come together to discuss Urdu poetry and literature,” Nigah said.

In India, Bollywood has helped promote Urdu, and contemporary ghazal singers who reach out to the masses have added to it. “What Jagjit Singh did to Urdu poetry will remain a milestone,” says Varma.  Even traditional mushairas have changed — “Now, younger poets recite first and there’s no longer traditional decor or protocol,” he says. With growing interest, however, understanding must deepen. “New poetry need not be difficult. Younger poets are writing in conformity with spoken language,” Varma adds. Saif Mahmood, 37, lawyer and poetry enthusiast, recently put together a series on Urdu poets for a city magazine. “Now, a lot is being published in the Roman script, which is allowing poetry to reach those who don’t know Urdu,” he says.

However, purists such as writers Sadiya Dehlvi feel there’s a long way to go before one can call it a ‘vibrant interest’. “Urdu in its written form is dying in India, surviving more as an oral tradition,” she says. An optimistic Jalil says Urdu has an auditory appeal that engages the senses. “Occasionally, young audiences may not fully understand word for word, but they appreciate the sentiment. It’s a myth that Urdu poets write only of romance, separation and the cliched shama-parvana. The modern poet addresses a range of concerns — from political to personal — that explains its wider appeal. As Ghalib said, ‘hamne yeh jaana ke goya yeh bhi hamare dil